As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.

Today, Sean Banville, one of the hardest-working people in the ESL/EFL world, has agreed to answer some questions. Sean has created some of the most-used websites in the world for ESL/EFL teachers and students, including Breaking News English. All of them are available to use free-of-charge and do not require any registration:

First off, can you give us a summary of all the websites and resources you create for English Language Learners? And is there one place people can go to find links to all of them?

I make ready-to-print lessons that I think are motivating for students. My seven lessons contain 100-1,500 copiable lessons, each with a 9 – 20-page handout, online activities and an MP3. I started in 2004 with BreakingNewsEnglish. I created this after spending several years making news lessons for my classes in Japan for students who continually requested lessons on news. I found their interest in my current affairs materails was greater than that in course books. The students’ background knowledge of the stories helped their understanding of the lesson. It was great when the lesson was the first time they’d heard that news – this added authenticity.

My second site, ESL Discussions, was very different. I created 500 one-page handouts each with 20-questions on a particular topic. We had a conversation lounge at the school I worked at in Osaka and I thought the discussion questions would help students who were more reluctant to talk and ask questions.

I had no plans to create any more sites and I can’t remember where the idea to make lots more came from. I remember sitting down one day and coming up with ideas for lots of sites. I think I bought around ten domain names in one go. I thought if I could make two new sites a year, I’d have them all up in five years. I’m on schedule to do that.

In the past three years I’ve uploaded Famous People Lessons (biographies of famous people in the news rather than the traditional people you find in course books). My ESL Holiday Lessons site is still in progress – I hope to have at least one lesson for every day of the year on holidays as well known as New Year’s Day and as obscure as Inspire Your Heart With Art Day and World Toilet Day. More recently I added News English Lessons (a news site for pre-intermediate learners), Listen A Minute (60-second listenings with activities for pre-intermediate students) and Business English Materials.

I also have a blog and a free ESL materials directory (in-progress) called FreeESLMaterials. All of my lessons are viewable here.

How did you get interested in teaching English Language Learners, how long have you been doing it, and what keeps you going?

I came across teaching English by chance. I was backpacking around Asia and was low on funds. I met an Englishman in a guest house in Bangkok who was going home for several months and wanted someone to cover his lessons. I loved my first day “teaching”. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time but my students seemed to enjoy my lessons. I more or less lectured from a TOEIC book. It wasn’t until I did my CELTA several years later I understood that teaching ESL was not explaining the grammar on dozens of random sentences. I taught in Bangkok for 11 weeks and decided that was the career for me – a good decision.

That was in 1989. I continued travelling for another two years and returned to England to save up the money for a CELTA course. I studied for that in Izmir, Turkey and then headed straight to Japan, where I spent the first 13 years of my teaching career. I left Japan in 2006 to teach at a college in the UAE. I’ve been very lucky to have worked for three fantastic institutions in my 18 years of teaching that allowed me a lot of freedom to experiment and develop professionally.

The thing that keeps me going is the chance to constantly learn about so many different things from so many cool people. I’ve made thousands of lessons on all kinds of very diverse topics. And I’ve learnt loads about educational technology. It’s a great profession to get you learning and trying out new things every day. And the great thing is you are working with people (teachers and students) who are eager to share their know-how about really good stuff. My first career was in accountancy. I somehow don’t think the same level of very interesting learning would be there.

What are the key pieces of advice you might give to an ESL/EFL teacher who is trying to improve their craft? What are the best things they can do, and what are the mistakes you think they should try to avoid?

I think one piece of advice I wish I’d been told when I was training was not to beat yourself up if a lesson isn’t that perfectly communicative, integrated skills, task-based on you planned. It’s impossible for me to count how many lesson plans I’ve made that I thought would be ace lessons but ended up not being so. You have to remember that dozens of things can happen in the classroom to knock the best plans off their tracks. Try to think of your plan as a rough guide and then go with the flow of what’s happening with your students. If they’re tired and don’t want to run around or read that lengthy text, have alternative things to do. So much of teaching is improvising, and spotting exploiting learning opportunities as you go. Highly important in this is negotiating with your students and following their needs. The more experienced you become, the less you’ll worry about things not going according to your plan and the less you’ll feel like a failed teacher because things didn’t happen the way you wanted them to.

The Internet wasn’t around when I first started teaching so there weren’t the incredible networking opportunities there are today. The very best way to improve your craft, as far as I’m concerned, is to build a PLN (Professional Learning Network) on Twitter. Follow the big names and you’ll soon have more links to cool tools, sites, blogs, wikis, conference news, etc. than you could possibly wish for. Be proactive on Twitter – say hello to everyone, repost the tweets you value and you’ll soon be followed by those big names. You’ll be part of a professional learning and sharing community of educators often called the world’s biggest staff room. Twitter has by far been the best source of professional development and networking in my career.

Mistakes to avoid?

Don’t put too much emphasis on planning the perfect lesson – as I said above.

Don’t follow the methodology you learnt on your training course too strictly – there isn’t a single method that works best. Experiment and try different things. Your students will soon let you know what works and what doesn’t. This includes trying things like grammar translation, audio-lingual techniques, dogme/unplugged teaching and everything else. A good class will incorporate all kinds of methods and techniques.

Don’t assume that what you’re teaching is what the students are learning. You need to do your best to understand where your students are, what they need and to what degree learning is taking place.

Remember that the coursebook is not the Holy Grail. A lot of the content is these books may not particularly interest your students. Do your best to personalize the book and introduce parallel texts that are more relevant to students’ lives. Content that interests and thus engages students is key in motivating them.

What kind of future plans do you have for your sites, and what do you see as potential trends or breakthroughs in the use of technology for teaching/learning English?

I have two plans for my sites. One is to make them more interactive. I need to upgrade my technical skills for that. Second plan is to make more. I have the domain names for another 18 sites and will make these over the next decade.

I imagine trends and technological breakthroughs will largely take place via mobile devices like iPads, and apps. I can see many more language students using these in conjunction with their own online teacher – either one-on-one via services like Skype, or in groups in virtual classrooms once online conferencing becomes easier and cheaper.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to say?

One thing I’d like to see in ELT is a greater regard to its status as a profession. Hopefully one day there’ll be a professional body that oversees all the things that are missing today, such as decent pay, contracts that don’t leave teachers jobless for 4 months of the year, employment standards language schools and universities must adhere to, etc.

Thanks, Sean!